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Department of Sociology
3 Years of E-learning -
the guinea pigs bite back!
One of the first questions I asked when I took up my post as a Criminologist in August 2002 was - What virtual learning platform is used at MMU? I was fortunate because my Head of Department actually knew the answer and also pointed me in the virtual direction of the ‘Learning and Teaching in Action’ publication which, that issue, was dedicated to Information Technology. This article, and others subsequently, provided a wealth of information on teaching in general and online delivery in particular and I will make reference to those I have found useful over the years. I had used BlackBoard in my previous post at John Moores University and so Rachel Forsyth’s article on the history of WebCT at MMU was very informative1 . Her article also explained how I could get started with using the technology and so, with a basic introductory training package under my belt, I was able to launch a WebCT module for first year Criminology students that September.
This was my first step to developing e-learning within the Criminology curriculum and the first step towards that particular cohort of students becoming the guinea-pigs of every idea and innovation in e-learning during the intervening three years! By 2005 it seemed only fair to canvass these Guinea Pigs on their experience and it resulted in some very insightful and informative feedback.
the Guinea Piglets and I start our journey
September 2002 saw the launch of the first WebCT module within the Criminology curriculum. Humanities and Social Science has had a comparatively poor uptake of WebCT until fairly recently. Som Naidu’s2 research in 2003 on the use and perception of e-learning at MMU highlighted the poor level of uptake of training and the small number of WebCT developers within the Faculty.
I started by embedding WebCT into my first year ‘Crime, Punishment and Penality’ unit and introduced it to students through a paragraph in the unit handbook and as part of their introductory lecture. The students in this cohort were my Guinea Pigs and they have had to put up with my numerous mistakes along the years! Because they were just starting their university career everything, not just WebCT, was new to them. They accepted WebCT as just another thing they would have to get used to about studying at university.
These students studying on the Criminology & Sociology and Criminology & Contemporary Culture degree routes have subsequently had units containing WebCT modules throughout their three years. As mentioned above, these Guinea Pigs were the first exiting Criminology cohort to have had the experience of on-line delivery for the whole three years of their degree. It has been argued that “in any learning endeavour, knowledge about learners and their preferences is precious”. 3 This is perhaps even more pertinent when those learners have worked alongside you for three years and are just about to leave university.
In the first year, students experinced WebCT blended with traditional delivery methods (lectures, seminars, tutorials, etc) and WebCT was used mainly to support the unit through online documentation storage and delivery:
- administrative materials including a syllabus, course handbook, etc
- class/lecture materials including handouts, overheads and reading lists
Their usage of WebCT developed in second and third year into a truly blended approach combining traditional (face-to-face) teaching with interactive, collaborative, online activities. Materials were either from existing resources available on the Internet or resources developed specifically for the unit including:
- reference materials for students to use as background resource materials
- online activities and exercises
- • online tests
- discussion boards
- collaborative learning activities
Forming the Focus Group
Because the Guinea Pigs are ‘technologically savvy’, recruiting the focus group was easy: I simply put out a request via WebCT and student email at the end of the Spring term of their third year. In criticism of my own practice, this did act to exclude students who had stopped interacting with WebCT but it was felt timely to assess long-term experience with elearning. The object of the research was not to determine why some students had not used WebCT – that is a task for other researchers. It is also worth noting that all students have had opportunities to feedback on learning experiences during the previous three years, through in-course monitoring and annual unit assessments, but this was the first time that they had been asked to reflect over the whole three years. The Guinea Pigs who volunteered to take part certainly had plenty to say!
By self selecting for the focus group, the Guinea Pigs were likely to be those who were most positive about elearning. However, it is also worth noting that they were at the end of their studies, had nothing more to gain or lose from participating and that their discussions did not shy away from critical assessment of their experiences.
I had considered conducting the focus group via WebCT. The success of such interaction has been documented elsewhere4 but I felt that a face to face meeting would provide a good opportunity to meet the students for a final time before they graduated. The aim of the focus group approach was to ensure that students could express themselves and also that certain areas of discussion were covered. These areas included:
- Level of support given to students
- Issues of functionality and flexibility
- Skills development
- Design of WebCT, online seminars and assessment
- General student experience
The rest of this article will outline what the Guinea Pigs had to say about their experience and how this helps to inform the future design of blended learning within the Criminology curriculum specifically and the use of e-learning by the Sociology department in general.
Support to Succeed: Assessing and Meeting Needs
The focus group began by asking the students to think back to the start of their degree and try to remember how they first got to know about and use WebCT. Although clear guidelines5 exist on how to support students in their learning, because the students and I had started our e-learning journey together, I was only ever a few steps ahead of them. I was always honest with them about this and their feedback has helped me enormously over the years in improving the experience for subsequent cohorts. But the Guinea Pigs commented on their lack of guidance in the first year:
I found out from another student.
I was scared about using it at first but I got hooked by the fact that you could get the lecture overheads before the lecture which meant I could print them out and have them with me to write on without having to write down the words …quotes and that … from the screen.
We were left to find out about it by ourselves. We weren’t given sessions on it.
The Guinea Pigs were quite critical about the lack of support I provided in their early days but research suggests that I am not alone in this failing:
“institutions previously had tended to neglect student services in their rush to develop and deliver instruction online”.6
It is vital that the “wealth of experience and know-how that goes in to the design, development and delivery of open and distributed learning”7 is not left to flounder for want of an introductory session! Although the Guinea Pigs had managed to overcome initial hesitance to using the WebCT system most agreed that an initial session would be helpful to:
- overcome nervousness about using the system
- sort out any log-on problem
- demonstrate the range of features
Yes, just to show us that we couldn’t wreck what was on it and to show us how to print stuff off and that sort of thing.
It wasn’t that it’s hard or anything, it’s just that you think it is. A session at the start of first year would show you how easy and useful it is .
This feedback demonstrates the need to ensure that students receive initial WebCT-generic and later Unit-specific sessions on e-learning. It also demonstrates that we have to be aware of the need for continuous feedback and to listen to criticisms of our own practice. The crucial thing for me was to retain a sense of humour and to be honest in holding my hands up and admitting when I got it wrong.
Functionality and flexibility – the benefits to students
Despite my failure to provide them with adequate support in year one, the Guinea Pigs considered WebCT easy to use and navigate around.
You showed us the changes in year two I think. Like the discussion boards and how to post messages. That was useful because it got us off on a flying start on those changes.
The times I have thanked you for providing the link to a Home Office document! The Home Office website is huge and it has a rubbish search engine, so it would have taken me ages to find the relevant material .
I mean it’s not like you spoon feed us stuff because you don’t but you give us a jumping off point that would take me ages to find on my own.
As Richard Eskins and Bill Johnson both point out in separate articles in a previous issue of ‘Learning and Teaching in Action’8 the Internet does not have quality assurance mechanisms. Utilising the functionality of WebCT is therefore one way for tutors to mediate between students and online sources. The students appreciated being signposted to credible online sources and being able to download lecture notes before a lecture. Students were not overly concerned about the transferral of printing costs onto themselves because they claimed to attach more value to the materials that they have printed themselves.
Because you have all the documents and other things online, I feel like I now know how to scan for useful stuff and also condense the text and format to how I like it. I print off the bits I want. I think on other units big handouts are off-putting, with yours I just print off the bits I want and that makes it more valuable to me.
Such a comment is illustrative of how we might assume we have got things right in supporting our students – for example by providing them with paper handouts – whereas the truth is that they may not be making good use of the material. Of course some students will continue to require paper based materials but WebCT can offer a viable alternative. WebCT can be very useful in posting links to websites, lecture notes and for other document/ information delivery.
WebCT adds other forms of flexibility. The Guinea Pigs articulated their experience of having to take responsibility for where and when they studied.
For me, flexibility is around childcare. I mean I can log-on to WebCT at night when the children are asleep
…even being able to ask a question when you want to. Not that I expect Helen is in her nightie logging on at the time of night that I do but I know I can send the question then and she’ll get round to answer it as soon as she can.
Students using WebCT are not hampered by time or location but this also brings demands of time management. The freedom of where and when to study brings with it the requirement to plan learning time and “students need to be less teacherdependent and engage in self, peer and tutor guided and resource-based learning”.9 Time management is crucial in e-learning as it provides the opportunity for students to take control of their own learning but students also need support on how to manage their time if they are truly to take responsibility for their learning.
The Guinea Pigs enjoyed participating in online asynchronous discussions at a time convenient to themselves:
I liked the fact that you could take time to think about what you wanted to say. I’m actually quite quiet in class and I need time to think things through. In class the discussion has usually moved on by the time I’ve thought about what I wanted to say so it gave me chance to have my say on things.
The Guinea Pigs pointed out that many students still want and value face to face seminars and WebCT cannot replace this type of personal interaction. However, some did feel more connected to the rest of the students in their group than they did on units that only had traditional seminars because WebCT communication tools encouraged them to develop discussions beyond the formal classroom. This aspect of ecommunication has been commented on by other researchers who value the sense of community that such tools can provide.10 The Guinea Pigs really liked the WebCT discussion boards:
At first I was nervous about posting messages and responses to on-line tasks but now there’s no stopping me and I’ll challenge what other students have said, in a nice way obviously, you have to be polite but you can still challenge.
Yes, it’s really useful, the discussion messages, because you can reflect on the point you want to make rather than feel you’re stupid in class for saying something off the top of your head. And you can reflect on what other people have written and sometimes they are really insightful, very impressive sometimes and gives me ideas I wouldn’t have got.
…also because Helen gave feedback, not on every message but on difficult bits or on subjects generally so you could see if you were on track.
I know that [Helen] sometimes makes private comments when students are way off mark and she needs to do that.
Monitoring and replying to issues raised by students through this medium can be very time consuming and contrasts starkly with the “Tutor as expert of last resort” approach which was successfully developed by Mark Stubbs and Ian Martin in their blended approach to learning.11 The diversity in approaches taken to elearning needs to be factored into designing Units making use of WebCT and adequately costed and funded by departments.12
Developing Skills: Developing Confidence
Balancing challenges with fun leads to understanding. Students all agreed that they enjoyed the fun elements included within the WebCT modules - crosswords, quizzes, self-tests etc. and that these helped them to check their own knowledge in a relaxed, confidential and enjoyable way. Being able to check back on how their awareness of a subject has developed over the months also helped to secure student’s confidence, not only in the course content but also in using ICT.
I liked the fun stuff too, you know, the crosswords and quizzes. They sort of help you test your knowledge but not in a hard way or where other students might think ‘she’s a bit thick’.
Students also claimed that they read more for Units that required them to complete online tasks and because they were feeding back through discussion boards, their keyboard skills and other ICT skills were continuously developed. Using WebCT communication tools also helped students develop confidence in debating an issue as it allowed for reflective and critical thinking rather than demanding immediate responses as is often required in a classroom.
Designing for innovation: Online seminars and assessment
There was some disagreement about whether students should get access to the full functionality of WebCT in year one or if it is better to introduce WebCT incrementally.
I think WebCT should be a progression year from year. Like I think we should just get bits of it in the first year and then more the next year and then all of it in the last year.
The consensus amongst the Guinea Pigs seemed to be that incremental use - moving from simple document delivery and storage in year one, though to interactive online seminars in year three - was the best design, although not everyone agreed on that point. This idea of incremental change in teaching methods and learning tools agrees with work by Trowler, Saunders, and Knight13 on best practice in changing teaching techniques. This incremental approach to change can also be a useful strategy for teachers as “the professional individual must perceive him or herself as being competent to implement the necessary changes and be sufficiently intrinsically motivated and committed to investigate possible ways forward”.14
Most students felt that some element of involvement with WebCT should be assessed and marked.
I reckon we should get marked on using WebCT. Because some people really put the effort in and other don’t and I think that more people would use it more and that would increase their knowledge if they were being marked on it.
Yes, it should be assessed or a part of your marks should come through doing on-line stuff.
It could be that this opinion was biased because the Guinea Pigs like WebCT and feel that they would have achieved good grades had they been assessed on their use of the system. This was also balanced by the suggestion that not all units should include online assessment, just those where it was appropriate. Students also wanted tutors running online tasks or seminars to be sensitive to assignment hotspots and this seemed particularly pertinent to third year workloads.
Overall student Experience
As well as being critical the Guinea Pigs did highlight the positive benefits that WebCT has brought to their learning, pointing out that features in WebCT were often useful across the range of their study and not just for those units where e-learning was an integrated component. They also pointed out the flexibility of discussion boards as an alternative means of communication. This was a tool that was used to some extent by the whole cohort and not just the technologically savvy Guinea Pigs (Crime and Violence discussion boards generated 659 messages in the academic year 2004-05). Students felt that they had benefited from the interactivity, flexibility and functionality that WebCT had brought to their learning. Even if used merely as a document repository, WebCT had benefits over using the J-Drive and students recognised these benefits:
I think WebCT gives you more than the J Drive anyway apart from being able to use it at home because it has links, guidance and interaction - think of the quizzes and just even being able to ask a question when you want to.
As Naidu has commented “placing study materials on shared drives, in itself, does not comprise a particularly novel teaching and learning innovation”.15 Students felt that WebCT worked best when used as an integrated and blended complement to traditional Units. In summary the Guinea Pigs identified:
increased confidence as an independent learner
a positive attitude to learning about new ideas and gaining new skills which they will take with them when they graduate
- effective communication skills
- greater reflective ability
- the ability to collaborate with others
- the ability to positively challenge viewpoints
- greater competence and confidence with ICT
We all enjoyed the focus group meeting. The participants received a copy of the report generated from the meeting and it was seen by all as a productive way to end our three year journey. The feedback from the Guinea Pigs will continue to improve elearning provision for future students and also my own development as an elearning provider. Their pioneering spirit will not be forgotten.
Endnote – the author would like to point out that she has a huge fondness for guinea-pigs and much prefers them to rabbits.
1 Forsyth, R. (2002) WebCT at Manchester Metropolitan University : progress and possibilities. Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 1(2).
2 Naidu, S. (2003) Trends in Faculty Use and Perceptions of E-Learning. Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 2(3).
3 Totok Amin Soefijanto in the Jakarta Post: February 06, 2005
4 Kenny, A. J. (2005) “Interaction in cyberspace: an online focus group.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 49 (4): 414-422.
5 10 steps to Develop Learner Support
6 Guide to Developing Online Student Services
7 Petch, J. (2004) Quality Assurance of Open and Distributed Learning Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 3(2).
8 Forsyth, R. (2004) Editorial Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 3(3).
9 Latchem, C. (2004) Staff Development for Open and Flexible Learning. Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 3(1).
10 Hodge, D. M. (2004). “Creating a virtual community of learners using WebCT: lessons learned.” Journal of Technology in Human Services 22 (3): 69-78.
11 Stubbs, M. and Martin, I. (2003) Blended Learning: One Small Step. Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 2(3).
12 Lockwood, F. (2001). Innovation in distributed learning: creating the environment. In F. Lockwood and A. Gooley (eds.), Innovation in Open and Distance Learning: Successful Development of Online and Web-based Learning. Kogan Page.
13 Trowler, P., Saunders, M. & Knight, P. (2003). Change thinking: Change practices . York : LTSN Generic Centre.
14 Fazey, D. (2005) Developing and Sharing Best Practice: some key issues and principles. LTiA Vol 3 (3)
15 Naidu, S. (2003) Trends in Faculty Use and Perceptions of E-Learning. Learning and Teaching in Action, vol 2(3).
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